JWST image
The first color image released from JWST shows a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723, whose gravity acts like a lens revealing more distant galaxies. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

WASHINGTON — A deep field of distant galaxies, some dating back to the first billion years after the Big Bang, is the first full-color image to come from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The image, released at a White House event July 11 and called “Webb’s First Deep Field,” is a sneak preview of a broader set of early release observations that NASA and its European and Canadian partners on JWST plan to publish July 12. The White House event, attended by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, was announced with less than 24 hours’ notice.

The image shows a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723 about 4.5 billion light-years away. The cluster acts as a gravitational lens, bringing into view far more distant galaxies, some of which appear in the image as arcs.

“We’re looking back more than 13 billion years,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson at the event. The NASA statement accompanying the image release didn’t give specifics on the more distant galaxies visible in the image, which involved 12.5 hours of images taken at several wavelengths. The Big Bang took place an estimated 13.8 billion years ago, meaning those distant galaxies date back to when the universe was less than a billion years old.

The detail in the image comes from a very tiny part of the sky. “If you held a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length, that is the part of the universe you’re seeing. Just one little speck of the universe,” Nelson said.

Biden appeared pleased by what he saw and by the performance of JWST. “It symbolizes the relentless spirit of American ingenuity and it shows what we can achieve, what more we can discover,” he said of the space telescope, which finally launched last December after billions of dollars of cost overruns and years of schedule delays. JWST is now working better than expected at the Earth-sun L-2 point 1.5 million kilometers away. “These images are going to remind the world that America can do big things.”

“This telescope is one of humanity’s great engineering achievements,” added Harris. Both she and Biden emphasized the role of international cooperation in JWST’s development, including how, according to Harris, “a scientific endeavor can build upon the international rules and norms that govern our cooperation in space.”

The White House event started more than an hour later because, Biden said, he was busy preparing for an upcoming trip to the Middle East. Media were ushered out of the room and the webcast ended after only about 10 minutes.

Scientists and others were immediately impressed, though, with the image. “This is just a first glimpse of what Webb can do,” said Macarena Garcia Marin, ESA instrument scientist for a mid-infrared instrument on JWST called MIRI, in an ESA statement. “While we are truly in awe today of Webb’s first deep field, I can’t help but think of what images and science results are just around the corner in the many years to come.”

“The first image from the James Webb Space Telescope unveiled this evening is an incredible preview of its remarkable technology and scientific power,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee, in a statement that featured bipartisan praise of the spacecraft from the committee’s leadership. “As a steadfast supporter of Webb and its mission, I am elated to see this image today — an image that has been 20 years of hard work in the making.”

The deep field image was originally scheduled to be released July 12 with the other early release observations. NASA and its partners will still release those other observations at that event. The other observations, announced by NASA July 8, include the Carina Nebula and Southern Ring Nebula within our own galaxy and the galaxy group Stephan’s Quintet about 290 million light-years away. NASA will also release spectra of the exoplanet WASP-96b, a “hot Jupiter” planet orbiting close to its star.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...